O'Connell, who captained the Lions during their last tour in South Africa four years ago, has been ruled out of action until April after undergoing surgery on his back for the second time at the end of last year.
Having only played two games for Munster this season and not started for Ireland since 2012's Six Nations, the 33-year-old lock said selection for the Lions may come too soon.
"You'd imagine the Lions squad will be picked on the basis of the Six Nations so it's going to be very difficult to make it," O'Connell said.
"I'd love to get back playing in April and see what happens. I'd love to get on some tour during the summer, be it with Ireland or the Lions."
O'Connell, Ireland's seventh most capped player with 85 appearances, has been dogged by injury in recent years but said he had never considered that the most recent setback could prematurely end his career.
"Certainly when you've a back injury you do have doubts but the medical staff have been very happy with how it went and I don't think playing again is an issue," he said.
"I'll be back. When that will be I'm not sure -- it will probably be somewhere between 12 and 16 weeks."
O'Connell described how he has tried every remedy under the sun to try and avoid surgery but had to give in to the inevitable.
"Everyone has a story about a back injury in their family," said O'Connell. "I've had everything offered to me from magnets to various drinks to every kind of a 'cure' for it."
And to emphasise just how determined he was to find a cure to his physical ailment, O'Connell revealed he resorted to using magnets: "I actually did try that. But I took them off after a day!
"With a back injury the last thing you want is to go for surgery, you try to manage it without the need for an operation, which is what I did in 2008," said O'Connell.
"That also seemed to be working initially and I was able to play against Racing Metro and Edinburgh in the first Heineken Cup games. But the symptoms plateaued and there was little improvement before Christmas.
"After consultation then with the IRFU medical staff and the surgeon, the next logical step was the operation.
"What is positive is that early on, the surgeon said it wasn't as big an issue as it was in 2002 or 2008, even though it is still surgery on my back. And the medical staff are really positive about how the operation went and how the recovery has started."